Clerk of the course Kai Tarkiainen talks us through what the WRC’s stars can expect at the Rovaniemi-based event and the challenge of building a new rally in a handful of weeks.
Q. Kai, the WRC’s drivers have enjoyed Rally Sweden as their winter fix for many years. How do northern Finland’s stages compare with the Swedish forests?
A. I would say the roads are very different in character. We have sections which are really twisty and narrow, with trees right there next to you all the time. Then we have wider sections that are high speed. My favourite is Friday’s first stage, Sarriojärvi. It’s magnificent, a rollercoaster from start to finish where speeds will exceed 200kph. It’ll be the favourite of the drivers, too.
Q. What are the big difficulties competitors will face?
A. Of course, it’s still deep winter so if the days are clear there’s going to be low sun in the afternoon and that might create visibility problems if the sun is directly ahead. Driving at night in the snow will be a new experience for many. There’s obviously lots of white stuff around, so you get a lot of reflection, even though you can actually see very well. But if it’s freezing in the night, there might be snow dust so that can create difficult visibility.
Video: Arctic Rally Finland
Q. Many of the stages were driven on the rally’s sister event, Arctic Rally Lapland, last month. What condition are the roads in?
A. I drove the stages on the Sunday, directly after the Finnish Championship event [Arctic Rally Lapland] and most stages you could not tell they had been driven. It was amazing how well prepared they were before the event so they could take the beating of 130 cars going through them on the weekend. They were in ‘mint’ condition already.
It’s been a proper winter in the region. After the Finnish Championship event some of the areas where the stages run had 30-40cm of new snow, very fluffy frozen snow which really doesn’t pack much when it is pushed to the side. But there are proper snowbanks. I’m sure the drivers are watching videos on the internet uploaded from last month, but it will probably look a lot different now. Once the new snow is ploughed, the banks get higher and the road gets narrower as you can’t push the snow out as much as you want to.
Q. Are the stages the same as Arctic Rally Lapland?
A. No. All the stages run in the opposite direction except the Wolf Power Stage in Aittajärvi, which is going to be almost exactly the same. Much of Saturday’s Mustalampi stage hasn’t been used in recent years and some has never been used before.
Q. Are you happy with the route?
A. Yes. Most of the stages were already quite familiar to me so it was easy to start thinking what we could use for a WRC event. I couldn’t get all the roads I wanted because much of the Finnish Championship event runs in a military rehearsal area and they already had exercises planned for this period. But that’s OK, because we have plenty to choose from.
Q. The rally was confirmed in the WRC on 14 January, so a year’s preparation has been packed into a few weeks. How hard has that been?
A. It’s been a big effort. We’ve been extremely lucky to have a ready Finnish Championship event as a template and an experienced organising team in Rovaniemi, which has been helping us a lot. When you work from the south of the country and try to build something in the north, you lose days travelling. If I come with the car from Helsinki, I sit 10 hours in the car one way! Luckily we have a very good team up here which has been quick to catch the way we think and work.
Before we started work we wanted to be sure our friends from Sweden were unable to get permission from their authorities. So 15 December was pretty much the point we could start working. The 2-3 weeks around Christmas were a nightmare to get people and get anything moving because everybody was away. Also the people in Rovaniemi were still working hard to put together their Finnish Championship event in mid-January and we didn’t want to disturb them too much and distract them from what they were doing.
Q. How much has the pandemic added to the difficulties?
A. The biggest thing was to make the health and safety authorities confident in our ability to build the rally in a way that they understand how committed the FIA and WRC Promoter are for the overall safety of the championship and all the participants and stakeholders. Working with Finland’s Frontier Guard to bring people to the country for the event has taken a lot of time and still does. Finland is pretty much closed at the moment so you must have an invitation from somebody who has permission to give such invitations. That process has been a hell of a lot of work and cost a lot of money as well because you need an army of people.